Babette’s Feast: A Play in Eight Courses

Theater Oobleck

Rhino in Winter festival at the Lunar Cabaret and Full Moon Cafe

By Carol Burbank

Isak Dinesen’s short story and the 1988 film adapted from it are both celebrations of community and the ideals of the French Revolution told through a narrative of food. And now Theater Oobleck has turned Babette’s Feast into a real feast: audience members get to sit like semivisible time travelers as they receive the blessing of “a play in eight courses.” Although the evening is cleanly structured by those eight courses and by the gentle, inevitable opening up of Dinesen’s characters as they experience the pleasures of a delightful meal, Oobleck’s adaptation (headed by David Isaacson) puts an intriguing sardonic spin on the story’s notions of community and “the people.”

Oobleck’s collective approach tends to produce political, irreverent evenings that go on and on, rambling along between moments of fine satire and creepy intensity. But at first Babette’s Feast seems a straightforward adaptation sweetened with a dinner prepared by seven Oobleck members. Props constructed entirely of food, however, give the experience a surreal and wacky edginess. And as the play progresses the political debates begin, and the story is complicated by ideological subtexts that recontextualize the sentimental hedonism of the primary story.

The plot is simple: Babette, a French chef and revolutionary who survived the bloody end of the people’s government, the Commune of Paris, in 1871, has used her lottery winnings to cook a feast for the spartan, devout Norwegian community that sheltered her in exile. Under the influence of good food and wine, the small gathering forgets its long-held petty differences, remembers past pleasures, and grows close again. In the Oobleck version, audience members sit at one of two long wooden tables and feast on course after course of remarkable food, relaxing and being served with flashbacks of the characters’ lives and their interactions.

Acting styles in the different scenes shift constantly, but always a mobile fourth wall of varying thickness distances the actors from the audience. Watching feels very safe but at the same time disorienting. Characters sometimes acknowledge the audience, but more often they leap up to perform in a flashback or are lost in contemplation of their food, and we’re left to simply consume the entertainment provided with each new culinary experience. This strategy–which effectively limits the audience to saying grace, observing, and eating– initially seems a conservative choice given the intimacy of the Lunar Cabaret setting and the political ideals of revolutionary participation. But the tactic effectively controls the audience and allows the troupe to twist the story to its own ends.

Several actors perform with a fascinating dreamlike hyperrealism. Martha Schoeneberg consumes each bite of food as if it were a revelation, her eyes searching the faces of her fellow diners in fear that they’ve noticed her overwhelming pleasure. Teria Gartelos gives Babette a practicality of gesture and tone that makes her last speech, about the nature of her art and her exile, quite moving by contrast. Overseeing the proceedings is the benevolent, somewhat nonsensically somber presence of Jon Smeenge as the Dean, the deceased father of the household, who gazes through a simple picture frame, an unnerving but funny mobile portrait.

Other performances disrupt the ease of these naturalistic styles, as if the actors were smartly designed Disney animatronic characters, coming to life to perform a scene and then returning to stiff anonymity or the blank activity of eating and drinking. This contrast may be deliberate, or it may have to do with the lack of a director, but it breaks up the experience of the feast, reminding me of my outsider’s role and the artificiality of the situation. Added to the sarcastic, amateurish melodrama of the flashbacks, this disruption of the play’s “reality” drove some audience members back to their plates and private conversations.

When Karl Marx and Pierre Joseph Proudhon (Colm O’Reilly and Dave Bayamon) arrived and began angrily debating the way to free “the people” from their chains, I retreated into contemplation, because it was clear that the Norwegians had become a pathway to a whole different play. The long, repetitive, but intriguing exchange between these two great revolutionary theorists is more clownish than instructive, however. The two fight over kitchen scraps, wax poetic about their roles in history, ask Babette about the people’s takeover of Paris, and generally yell themselves hoarse before they bluster out the door, leaving us with a sense of their failure as ideologues. It is left to Babette, at the end of the play, to explain the conflict between art and a people’s revolution, even as the community she’s serving munches on, unaware of her voice.

With the litter of dishes and bread crumbs and wine bottles covering the table, Babette explains that she cannot go back to Paris because her audience, the nobles and upper-class customers who used to consume her magnificent food, are no longer there to savor her performance. She sacrificed her art by attacking the only people trained to appreciate fine dining. Great cooking–like art, it seems–is for the elite, who know how to consume it with the proper pleasure. Or, as a member of the Paris Commune is quoted in one of the many program notes, “If you want to produce a moral treatise, don’t make a painting, but a declaration of the rights of man. A work of art is moral when it is well done.”

After we’ve witnessed the failures and losses of the Commune of Paris (the warfare is enacted with hollowed-out French-bread guns, wounds being indicated by invisible “blood” poured from plastic ketchup bottles), the irony of passively consuming the evening’s offering makes more sense. Framing Babette’s Feast as consumable art, Oobleck pays a sardonic tribute to art for art’s sake. The Norwegian community’s initial disdain of Babette’s delicate concoctions and the love that then wells up in them thanks to her food and wine seem to show the triumph of art as a righteous form of hedonism. But it’s also clear that these repressed, frustrated characters are “the people,” and that they may forget this brief but heartfelt pleasure once the butter-and-wine buzz wears off. Where, then, is art’s power?

The political contradictions and complicated mix of acting styles in Oobleck’s adaptation make for a multisensory, goofy, serious, flawed, almost perfect, very real event. The aim seems to be for us to decide how art can change the world, but bribed by exquisite dining and energetic playacting, we staggered into the night talking about turtle soup and quails in butter-pastry “coffins.” Like rich food, the political ironies raised by Babette’s Feast must be digested slowly.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo.